Reflections on climate change and the urban poor

To me, suffering, climate change, and poverty are interconnected.

I grew up in a crowded city in East Asia in the 1970s. Most of us were poor, though not destitute. We were able to put food on the table, but had to work very long hours in unsafe conditions in factories in order to make ends meet. Common urban environmental issues—such as air pollution and dirty sewage—affected us all the time. But through hard work and perseverance, we made do.

Today, the area I lived in continues to be one of the poorest districts in the city. In fact, the city’s rich-poor disparity is the worst among developed countries. Although the city is undoubtedly one of the wealthiest in the world, the living condition of the poor is quite appalling.

Climate change will affect the urban poor severely. Rising global temperature is a health hazard for the poor, not least the elderly and young children, in this very hot urban concrete jungle. The increasingly frequent extreme weather endangers the life of the poor who live in makeshift accommodation, often in the form of substandard rooftop dwellings. The urban poor’s lack of economic resources and low social status means that it is hard for them to adapt to or take part in mitigating the effects of climate change. They cannot afford to have energy-efficient housing. Nor can they opt for renewable energy at its current price.

cardboard_lady_1But if we think that they are not active participants of creation care, we are wrong. Their poverty means that they do not worship the idols of materialism and consumerism. (But of course they are often victims of a highly market-driven economy). They contribute to negligible greenhouse gas emissions, for they don’t use much electricity anyway. In fact, they naturally minimise energy usage for that is their lifelong habit.

In my view, it is important not to think that the urban poor are simply victims of climate change, or passive participants of creation care. Yes, the poor do suffer more than others, but we should appreciate their resilience and tenacity. The Bible says,

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:1–5; NRSV)

Even though this passage is about the Christian life, it sheds light on the fact that suffering is not necessarily a negative experience, whether Christian or not. The urban poor have learned to live in hope. Their character has been shaped by years of patient endurance in suffering. I will finish with a symbolic picture of a phenomenon in an Asian city.

Everyday you can find a large number of elderly people collecting cardboard boxes, old newspapers, and aluminium cans on the streets. They sell these recyclable items for a small amount of money so as to make a living. So, ironically, these people in their 60s and 70s (or older) take part in recycling and waste management to protect the environment, while the wealthy continue to indulge in consumerism and materialism. Despite their old age and declining health, these urban giants persevere with dignity. They live in hope and self-respect even though the city has forgotten their lifelong contribution to its welfare. Paradoxically, the silent resilience of the vulnerable is a loud voice that speaks against Australia’s lack of serious action on climate change.

Source of picture: Accessed on 20th June 2016.

Reflections on living on a low income in Australia (Part 2)

In my last post I talked about the challenges of living on a low income in Australia. In the following I want to affirm that living on a low income is by no means a sign of God’s abandonment. Nor is it necessarily a hindrance to participate in the purpose and mission of God. Here I will briefly mention a few things that I have learned in this journey.

First, focus on God and trust him for his provision. This is not as simple as it sounds. It is in fact a lifelong journey, with many failures along the way. There are many miracles of God’s blessings, even though sometimes they are very tiny miracles. Sometimes God blesses me with the company of friends who buy me coffees. At other times we receive substantial financial gifts from friends who do not expect anything in return. And there are times when we simply have to faithfully trust in God’s love.

Second, have a sense of God’s vocational calling. When I lost my job, I was anxious to find work. But after prayer it became clear that I should wait on God for work that fits into his purpose for me and for his world. Over the years God has given me opportunities to participate in his purpose through theological teaching and other voluntary services. Regardless of how much I earn, I know that I am walking with God, which is most important. The one who calls us is faithful (1 Thess 5:24).

Third, not having many material possessions is a good thing. God has supplied all our needs. We live a simple life, and it is good! Some months ago I asked our 14-year-old whether he wanted an iPhone or smart phone, knowing that almost all his friends had one of those gadgets. But he said that he didn’t need one. He is accustomed to not having extra material things. Living simply is great.

Fourth, low income draws the family closer. We don’t have much, but we have each other. We enjoy our yummy meals at home. Our son always praises Mum’s cooking. Isn’t that wonderful? We also enjoy cheap meals in the Asian restaurants in multicultural Melbourne. There are many precious moments that we cherish as a family.

Fifth, our experience helps us to identify with the pain of others, albeit only in very small measure. Our struggles remind us of the much greater suffering that the poor and marginalised experience on a daily basis. Trials help us to be better listeners to the stories of those who suffer, especially those living with poverty and social injustice. If anything, I hope our low income can reduce the power differentials between us and the poor, even though only by a little bit.

Sixth, our experience helps us to understand the mission of God. God sent his Son to become a human being, to identify with the suffering of humanity, and to die on the cross so as to set them free from the power of sin and death. God raised him from the dead so that all who are in him may flourish as people created in his image. Christ did not just say that he cared, he came to share—to share the joys and pains of humanity. Our very small struggles give us an opportunity to follow the footsteps of our Lord, saviour, and king. We pray that by God’s grace we may also share the reasons for our hope with the people around us.

Reflections on living on a low income in Australia (Part 1)

It has been tough since I lost my job a few years ago. But I have managed to find casual work all these years. My wife works part-time. I also do volunteering work. Unfortunately, even though we both work very hard, we live on a low-income.

We are not poor. We have a roof over our heads, and food on our table. We receive Family Tax Benefit payments from the government. As Australian citizens, we have access to Medicare benefits. We have some savings for a rainy day. Our family car is still in good condition, and so are our computers. These essential items keep us in touch with friends, so that we are not isolated. We are of course in a much better financial situation than many other Australians, such as the homeless and those living with a severe disability (and without sufficient family support). And of course our living standard is much higher than those living in low-income countries.

My education and work experience also put me in a much better position than many others. I know how to manage my finances. I can work my way through the Centrelink website to find out what benefits I am eligible for. I don’t have problems in filling out the very complicated application form for the low-income healthcare card. Even though I am a migrant, my English is good enough to talk with the Centrelink consultants on the phone.

But it doesn’t mean that living on a low income is easy. In the following I want to share my experience over the last few years, and highlight a few things that I have learned as a follower of Jesus.

The first challenge we face is how to handle stress. When will the next casual job come up? What should I do when there are two or more casual job offers? Declining offers may jeopardise future job opportunities. But at the same time it is very stressful to take on too much work, not to mention that the quality of my work will drop when doing multiple jobs. Not uncommonly, the pay is not good, and sometimes the employer does not pay on time. But I have no choice but to work for them. This can lead to disappointment and frustration. There are many other reasons for stress—such as, you never know when the next pay cheque will come, and how big (or small!) it is. But you get the picture.

The second challenge we face is downward social mobility. Our tight budget means that we have to reduce our social activities. We try not to go out for coffee, lunch, or dinner with friends, including friends at church, because even a coffee is quite expensive nowadays. We turn down invitations to go on holidays with friends. Sometimes conversations with friends can be difficult. When they talk about their new coffee machine, lounge suite, overseas holidays, going to the theatre, and their children’s special extra curricular activities, we feel left out because we cannot afford them.

None of our friends live a life of luxury. They are hardworking middle-income people who live according to what they can afford. Many of them are Christians and are generous people. But increasingly we find ourselves living in a different world. In fact, Christian conferences are beyond our budget, not to mention overseas mission trips or visiting those living with poverty outside Australia. Even though I have a PhD in Biblical Studies, and four other degrees, I need a small office-cleaning job to supplement my income. I don’t think anyone thinks that it is a shame to do such a menial task. But the fact is, we have moved down the social ladder. There is inevitably a sense of loss and isolation.

The third challenge has something to do with culture and family background. I have an East Asian background, and my father’s family is quite poor. My Aussie friends do not understand my obligation for my father’s wellbeing (including financial wellbeing), and the shame I feel for not being able to give him more money. Conversely, I don’t have middle-class Christian relatives to turn to as a last resort for help. In addition, I feel that I deprive my son of more opportunities—not just material things, but also opportunities to engage in extra curricular activities that other kids enjoy.

The fourth challenge is about religion. Increasingly I feel that individualism is a big issue in Christianity. The goals and desires of the individual are highly valued. Independence, self-reliance, and the rights of the individuals take centre stage. I do believe that personal relationship with God is absolutely important, and my own experience of faith affirms that. But personal relationship with God has little to do with individualism, where the “I” (instead of the self-giving Christ!) is the centre of everything. I find that I have to come to terms with the fact that Christianity in the West is quite individualistic, and often people don’t see that it is a problem. But the thing is, my situation has taught me that my goals and desires as an individual are no longer important (as I will explain later).

Another feature of contemporary Christianity is triumphalism—a belief that Christians always win, that they can always overcome adversity. In this belief system, there is little room for failure or defeat, let alone suffering. In fact, suffering, including financial hardship, is to be rejected as totally undesirable. I do not fit into this brand of Christianity.

So, living on a low income affects many areas of life. It has an impact on our mental and social wellbeing, as well as family life and religious orientation.

Having said all that, I have come to realise that living on a low income is by no means a sign of God’s abandonment. Nor is it necessarily a hindrance to participate in the purpose and mission of God. In the next blog post I will outline a few things I have learned in this journey.

What does the cross mean to you?

Someone posted in social media recently and asked the question, “What does the cross mean to you?”

ImageI find this intriguing because I am teaching a course on the cruciform church at the moment. I looked at the responses to the question, and here is my paraphrase of the answers.

  • Grace.
  • I come to the cross to tell Jesus how much I need him.
  • Unconditional love.
  • Everything.
  • It means that my life will never be the same again.
  • It tells me how much he has done for me.
  • It symbolises two thousand years of effective protection for Christians.
  • Forgiveness and hope.
  • When I look at the cross, I know that he answers the prayers of the individual.

The other responses are very similar.

I certainly think that the cross represents the unconditional love of God. And I share the experience of a totally changed life when I came to faith in Christ. At a personal level, the message of the cross—the cruciform death and resurrection of Christ—has the most profound impact on my life.

But I wonder whether the above answers highlight some issues we have to face as a church at large?

First, almost all the responses above are about what God has done for us, or will do for us. There is very little about what the cross demands.

For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke all talk about cross-bearing.

Then he [Jesus] said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (NIV; Luke 9:23; cf. Matt 10:38; Mark 8:34)

And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27; Matt 16:24)

The cross is certainly very important to the apostle Paul. In Galatians he talks about his co-crucifixion with Christ.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Gal 2:20a)

Paul also speaks of a cruciform leadership pattern that is about identifying with Christ’s death so that the life of Christ may manifest through his weakness.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Cor 4:10–11)

Much more can be said. But it is clear that the New Testament does not only talk about what the cross does for the followers of Jesus. It also has much to say about what the cross means to the daily life of Christ-followers.

No wonder Isaac Watts says in his great hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,

Love so amazing, so divine. Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Second, almost no-one cites or alludes to the Scripture in their responses to the question “What does the cross mean to you?” in the above question raised in social media. This (at least partially) explains why the responses are all fairly similar, and that they ignore cross-bearing and the cross-shaped faith. I think many will agree that biblical literacy has been declining in recent years, and this is a very unhealthy trend.

Third, I wonder whether the responses also reflect a “what’s in it for me” church culture today? I am glad to see that people do love Jesus because of the cross. But one’s love for God needs to be expressed through cruciform commitment to Christ. I personally find this commitment very challenging. But nonetheless this is what we are called to do, and so let us do so by relying on God’s grace and the help of his Spirit.

Four, I wonder what teaching we receive in our churches and on the Internet today? Do we still focus on the Scripture? Do we challenge Christians to focus on the cross and be faithful to God? I hope we do.

Fifth, I really hope that Christians in the West do not export a truncated understanding of the cross to other parts of the world. I mean, we need to present and live out a gospel message that truly reflect the meaning of the cross. The cross is about the good news of the Jesus for humanity, and at the same time it demands Christ-followers to embody the self-giving love of Jesus in the world.

Let me close by citing the words of Miroslav Volf.

In a world of violence, the Cross, that eminently counter-cultural symbol that lives at the heart of the Christian faith, is a scandal . . . there is no genuinely Christian way around the scandal. In the final analysis, the only available options are either to reject the cross and with it the core of the Christian faith or to take up one’s cross, follow the Crucified—and be scandalized ever anew by the challenge. (in Volfs book, Exclusion and Embrace, page 26)

I find this very challenging. May God give us the courage and grace to follow Jesus.

As Christians, where should our support go to when it comes to poverty alleviation?

I spent almost seven years in the aid and development sector. My role there demanded me to think biblically about good community development in poverty-stricken places around the world. I came to the conclusion that good community development work and poverty reduction projects must involve faithful embodiment of Christ’s life, suffering, death, and resurrection. This can take many forms. But invariably it cannot be measured in terms of short-term success stories. Importantly, it cannot be measures in terms of what we in the West call “success.”

Much can be said about this. But Matthew Maury’s comments below provide us with a timely reminder of what good community development looks like.

Over the past 25 years, I have regularly been reminded that community development is not a predictable and linear process. This is something I find to be particularly true in communities struggling to overcome the worst forms of poverty and oppression. Development is typically complicated and often messy work, with progress at times hidden from immediate sight. Our work often epitomises the saying “two steps forward and one (or two) steps back”. To achieve lasting positive change requires long-term commitment and can take many, many years.

The challenge . . . is to tell the true story of “messy development”. This is particularly true in context in which development agencies try to “sell” their successes in order to convince donors to fund their work. Australian donors — the church included — have become addicted to (and demanding of) a narrative of easy and quick success for the cost of just a few dollars per month . . . While I also want to see my donations used as effectively and successfully as possible, I fear that our sector has created an unhealthy (and unrealistic) expectation about the core work that we do — messy development.

As Christians, we know that God doesn’t call us to prioritise worldly success but rather to pursue lives of faithfulness. I believe this is equally true for . . . the essence of good development work. We are called to be faithful to the commands of Scripture. Commands which tell us to put all we have towards loving God and loving our neighbour. We are to pursue justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our Lord (Micah 6:8). Commands which do not have easy-to-achieve three-year project proposals tied to them.

The title of this blog post is: As Christians, where should our support go to when it comes to poverty alleviation? I actually don’t have a simply answer to this question. (In fact, I don’t claim to be an expert in the field at all.) To do justice to the complexity of poverty and community development, we must not resort to simple answers. But what is clear, I think, is that we should not uncritically support organisations that major on selling simple success stories without explaining the complexity of poverty reduction. Instead, it is those people and agencies that honestly share their struggles in “messy development” that deserve our attention.

Source of citations above: Target Magazine, Issue 1, 2016 (TEAR Australia), page 2.

Reflections on the power dynamics in Mark’s Gospel (The Widow’s offering)


(This is a slightly revised version of a reflection I shared at a seminar last year.)

I would like to share some thoughts on the widow’s offering at the temple in Mark 12:41–44. (I confess that I am no expert in Mark’s Gospel—in fact, far from it. So, Markan scholars, please forgive me for any embarrassing error of judgment.)

I used to be a pastor in a big inner-city church (with more than 1,000 members). One day, a widow—whose husband had died about a year before—told me that she had listened to a motivational preacher at another church. That speaker inspired her so much that she gave a large sum of money to the ministry.

I could guess what the message of the motivational sermon was, for it was very popular at the time. The message was probably something like this: you reap what you sow; and whether you are rich or poor, the best way to get God’s blessing is to sow your money into the church and then you will reap God’s blessing.

The widow at my church was not poor, but was certainly vulnerable given the limited resource she had. She was, one might argue, exploited because of her vulnerability. (That was unlikely to be the intention of the preacher though.) As you will see, her story has somewhat shaped my understanding of the widow’s offering in Mark.

The Jerusalem temple and Melbourne

The setting of the widow’s offering is the Jerusalem temple. Like other well-known temples in the ancient world, it was the religious, social, and economic centre in the region. And like other major cities, Jerusalem, as an urban centre, would have been a melting pot of people, with a minority wealthy ruling class and a majority poor population, as well as some foreigners of non-Jewish ethnic origins.

The CBD (Central Business District) of Melbourne and the inner-city suburbs bear similar features. We have the State Parliament House, small and large churches, including St Patrick’s, St Paul’s, and City On a Hill (which is a big church that meets at Hoytes Cinemas in the CBD). Then we have one Hindu temple, quite a few Buddhist temples, and several mosques. In addition, Melbourne is a very multicultural society.

Most major banks and businesses can be found in the city. It is not true that the majority of the population is poor. But we do see sharp contrasts between the rich and the poor. Low-wage cleaners, middle-class professionals, and super-high-income executives work in the same buildings. There are expensive apartments and houses, but there are also many homeless people. Among the poor are those living with mental illness, many of them have suffered from family violence. Then there are asylum seekers, who are often very poor. Some of them suffer from mental illness because of the trauma they have experienced.

Power dynamics in the systems

Some have suggested, rightly, that the temple system and its leaders in Jerusalem were the ones responsible for the poverty and marginalisation in the city. The duty-bearers—the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders (that is, those in positions of power)—failed to act justly and provide for the poor. The presence of a poor widow was a vivid picture of the failure of the temple system to care for the most vulnerable in the society.

Likewise, behind the wealth and poverty in Melbourne are social, economic, political, and religious systems that fail to care for the poor and the disadvantaged. And our duty-bearers—and we, who have the right to vote in our democratic system—need to be held accountable. Saying that the asylum seekers came to Australia illegally is a violation of their humanity as image-bearers of God. A culture of neglect of domestic violence—both inside and outside the church—is unacceptable.

And we should not forget our highly market-driven global economy. I know that some people are unhappy with the wealthy Asians who contribute to the high property prices in Melbourne. Some think that their urban lifestyle is a reason why we now have high-density apartment blocks. But we have forgotten that for decades the West benefited from the cheap imported goods from Asia, which was produced by millions of low-wage workers who worked very long hours in unsafe working conditions. So, as we shop at our big department stores and as our financial planners help us to earn money in shares, we also help to create a minority wealthy upper class in Asia, who has the resources to buy expensive properties in the West, including those in the Melbourne CBD and inner-city suburbs. I think gentrification is a big issue for the urban poor today. But there are deeper issues and economic dynamics that we need to be aware of.

The desire for honour (Mark 12:38–40)

I have highlighted some of the power dynamics at play in our world today. Now let us take a look at Mark 12:38–40, which says,

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ (NRSV; emphasis aded)

Anyone who has some understanding of the honour-and-shame social convention in the ancient world would know that this passage speaks of the scribes’ desire for honour and wealth within the social and religious culture at the time.

I wonder whether this passage has something to say about the celebrity culture today? Fuelled by consumerism and aided by the social media, our celebrity culture allows people to gain honour and social power by virtue of a niche market or message, rather than the quality of the whole of their lives.

And don’t think that this only applies to reality TV shows and popular churches. All of us are subject to the same temptation, including pastors, biblical scholars, theologians, and urban mission practitioners. Popularity is forever seductive, for it appeals to our never-ending desire for power.

Here I would like to highlight the devouring of the widows’ houses in Mark 12:38–40. Prior to this passage, Jesus had been debating with the scribes about the Scripture. Implicit here is the scribes’ failure to practise what the Scripture clearly says concerning solidarity with widows. Jesus responded with some very strong words, “they will receive the greater condemnation,” which (in context) paves the way for his prediction of the temple’s destruction in Mark 13.

An unnecessary offering (Mark 12:41–44)

After this, Jesus said,

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ (NRSV)

Mark’s account is different from Luke’s in that in verse 43 Jesus called his disciples to highlight the contrast between the giving of the widow and that of the rich. Three verses later, one of the disciples made a remark about the magnificence of the temple building, which is remarkable in that this means that the temple hardly needed the widow’s tiny offering.

This begs the question of whether the widow’s offering was misguided—perhaps by the scribes themselves (although we cannot be sure)? Maybe, like the widow I knew at my previous church, this widow was misled by the religious leaders of her day? At any rate, at a practical level the widow’s offering was so insignificant in economic terms that it was hardly necessary for the temple’s upkeep.

Economics and power

In a moment I will look at the devotion of the widow. But before that, two observations on the economic and social dynamics are in order.

First, the coins and the economy of the Roman Empire. Earlier in Chapter 12, the Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to trap Jesus by asking him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13, 14). Then Jesus asked them to bring him a denarius, which was a silver coin with a portrait of the emperor and an inscription saying “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” The two coins used by the widow were lepta (λεπτα; plural of λεπτόν), which were the least valuable coins used in circulation in Palestine.

What we see here are pictures of religious-political and economic power dynamics. Who was in power, the God of Israel, or Caesar—who was the “son of the divine” according to the inscription on the coin? Or was it the interconnected oppressive religious-political and economic systems in the Empire?

Second, the widow and the social system. In Mark’s Gospel, the Greek term for “widow” (χήρα) appears only in our passage (12:40, 42, 43). But let us not forget that 20 verses earlier Jesus debated with the Sadducees about the resurrection of the dead. The illustration used was a woman whose seven partners died. This means that the woman effectively became a widow seven times! It also means that she became vulnerable seven times because of the prospect of socioeconomic marginalisation as a result of not having a husband in a male-dominant society.

The pro-Roman Sadducees did not like resurrection because they believed that prosperity and security came from Rome, who had the power to kill and conquer. But the belief in the resurrection would render that power meaningless.

The resurrection, of course, also meant that the widow could have the hope of ultimate liberation from socioeconomic oppression.

But in our passage we hear that the scribes devoured the widows’ houses, and a poor widow is giving all that she had to live on to the temple system that failed to protect her.

I think similar social, economic, and religious power dynamics are at play in Melbourne, and I have already mentioned examples of these above.

The devotion of the poor widow

I will now look at the devotion of the poor widow. And here I want to emphasise that I am referring to the devotion of the widow expressed in her giving, not the financial gift itself. I have mentioned that the beautiful and imposing architecture of the temple is set in sharp contrast to a vulnerable widow. But I think the contrast between the giving of the rich and that of the widow is just as—if not more—striking. Jesus said,

For all (πάντες) of them have put in out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in all (πάντα) she had, everything she had to live on. (12:44; my translation)

It is in this sense that the widow put in more than all of (πάντων) the others (12:43).

(For those who know Greek, see how the Greek highlights the contrasts between them, the dual use of πᾶς and ἐκ: πάντες γὰρ ἐκ τοῦ περισσεύοντος αὐτοῖς ἔβαλον, αὕτη δὲ ἐκ τῆς ὑστερήσεως αὐτῆς πάντα ὅσα εἶχεν ἔβαλεν ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς.)

As mentioned above, my sense is that the widow’s offering was somewhat misguided, and her giving was definitely not a model for the poor. In fact, one can argue that her financial giving was an illustration of the exploitative social-religious system that the scribes represented.

Yet her devotion to God was to be commended, and it seems that Jesus did just that. The evidence for this, I think, is found in the theme of wholehearted devotion in the current passage and in the pericope a few verses before that.

The theme of devotion to God is present in Mark 12:38–44 itself, although in a very negative way. In verse 40 Jesus mentioned the scribes’ long prayers, which was the evidence for their false devotion to God. Of course, the theme of wholehearted devotion is found in Jesus’ conversation with a particular scribe in 12:28–34, which was about the greatest commandment.

Here we need to note that Mark 12:38–44 ends with a reference to the widow’s devotion to God.

She put in the whole of her life (or “livelihood”) (My translation of ἔβαλεν ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς.)

The word “whole” is highly significant. Mark just used the word “whole” (ὅλος) very recently—seven times in 12:28–34 (verses 30, 33). A scribe asked Jesus which commandment was the most important (12:28). Jesus referred to Deut 6:4–5 and said,

Love the LORD you God with your whole (ὅλης) heart, with your whole (ὅλης) soul, with your whole (ὅλης) mind, and with your whole (ὅλης) strength. (12:30; my translation)

The scribe agreed and added “to love one’s neighbour as oneself” as the other important commandment (12:33).

Ironically, only seven verses later Mark speaks of Jesus’ rebuke of the scribes. Instead of loving their “neighbours”—that is, the widows—they exploited them (12:40). But most significantly, it was the poor widow’s offering that Jesus described as a “whole of life” expression of devotion to God.

So, the rich and the scribes failed to keep the second greatest commandment, while the poor widow fulfilled the greatest commandment by loving God wholeheartedly. In fact, by failing to keep the second commandment, the rich failed to love God with their whole heart. But the poor widow demonstrated her genuine devotion to God despite her lack of resources to give to anyone.

Devotion to God and faithfulness in suffering

Three further observations before I wrap up with some final reflections.

First, as mentioned, the theme of devotion to God actually started in Jesus’ comment on the scribes, where he said that as a show they made long prayers (12:40). Their devotion was a false one. This is set in shark contrast to the devotion of the poor widow. Incidentally, even biblical scholars, theologians, pastors, and social justice activists face the temptation to put on a show in their work, especially when they have become famous. We need to be on our guard all the time.

Second, the widow’s offering is the last thing mentioned before Mark 13, which speaks of the destruction of the temple. If Jesus, the “faithful suffering servant” figure was the one who had the authority to prophetically announce judgement on the temple system, then the widow, given the location of the text in Mark’s Gospel, is the most prominent human figure who embodied the call to being faithful in suffering.

Third, the first story after Mark 13 is the anointing of Jesus by a woman. It seems that the theme of devotion bookends the judgment in Mark 13. (Incidentally, both the denarii and the poor are mentioned the Mark 14:5—economics again!)

Concluding stories

To conclude, let me suggest that those who suffer more are often those who love God more. I think the widow’s offering serves as a prophetic critique against the exploitative socioeconomic and religious systems. But it seems that it is simultaneously a demonstration of the power of the powerless. When you are poor, when you have nothing to live on, and when you are suffering, the best you can offer to God is your whole life.

Faithfulness in suffering is in fact the most powerful response to unjust system, and, indeed, cosmic evil powers. The Crucified Christ and Risen Lord is, of course, the one who showed us what this means.

Neil, a former member of my church who died from cancer some time ago, is a good example of faithfulness in suffering. Neil lived with mental illness for many years. But despite his many struggles he said to me one day, “I am not afraid to die, for I know where I am going.” His hope was, of course, ultimately on the resurrection, for just as God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he is also the God of Neil.

Mary (not her real name), a friend from Chin State, Burma, is another example. She came to Melbourne as a refugee, fleeing from severe persecution in Burma. And she has no relatives here. We can hardly imagine what it was like to be a refugee and how it feels to be a migrant like her. But one day she told me how often she prayed: whether at work or study, she always prayed. I wish I were as devoted to God as she is.

I can go on and on, but I hope you get the picture. I set out to look for hidden power dynamics in Mark’s Gospel. And I ended up finding the most powerful story in a widow—the most powerless person whose voice is arguably the loudest even though she didn’t say anything.

The question is: how often do we allow the noise in the city and the marketplaces to stop us from hearing her voice?

The Book of Revelation and the call of the church to mission (Dean Flemming)

Sometimes Christians find it hard to understanding the Book of Revelation in the Bible. At the same time, the followers of Jesus don’t always know how to embody the mission of God in their lives. But in his book, Recovering the Full Mission of God, Dean Flemming helps us to read Revelation (and other New Testament books) and understand God’s call for the church to participate in his mission, especially in the Western world.


Here are a few excerpts from Flemming’s book.

[The] church is to come out of Babylon—“to be a godly community in the midst of the ungodly empire.” (Page 238; emphasis added; see Rev 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21.)

From Revelation’s perspective, the church lives out its missional calling in a world dominated by a Roman Empire that had declared its power to be absolute. Rome had hijacked the claim to sovereignty over the world from the one true God. This idolatrous order was demonstrated above all in the emperor cult, which thrived in the cities of Asia. (page 238)

It is a call for God’s people to abandon Babylon-like living. Practically, it means distancing themselves from such ordinary cultural practices as eating food sacrificed to idols (Rev 2:14–15, 20–21). Christians could encounter idol food in a whole variety of settings. These included public festivals, social dinners at the temple, and meetings of the trade guilds, all of which involved honouring the emperor and the traditional pagan gods. But although this might be a “normal” activity in the culture, in John’s prophetic eyes, it is a compromise with state-sponsored idolatry. Leaving Babylon would also involve forsaking unjust economic practices. And, as Christ’s message to the church in Laodicea reveals, it is a departure from self-indulgent consumption, along with the arrogance that fuels it. “I am rich,” boast the Laodiceans, “I have prospered, and I need nothing” (Rev 3:17). In short, exiting Babylon entails leaving behind whatever values and practices support the idolatry of the empire and oppose the claims of the true and living God. (page 239; emphasis added)

God’s people must live as a holy, distinctive community in the public square. Loyalty to the Lamb is no private affair. They have “his [the Lamb’s] name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1; cf. Rec 22:4), for all to see. In Revelation’s symbolism, they bear a divine “seal” (Rev 7:3–8; 9:5) as an outward, visible sign that they belong to God, not to the beast (cf. Rev 13:16–17). The church’s life is not hidden, but on parade before a watching world. As God’s people “Follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4), they become a public embodiment of the narrative of the crucified Lord. And this draws others to the Savior.[1] (page 241; emphasis added, except for “in the public square”)

What would it mean for Christian communities to “come out of Babylon” today? In the first place, we must seek to discern, by the Spirit’s guidance, where “Babylon” is to be found. It may be nearer than we think. Where in the world do governments or corporations increase their own wealth and security at the expense of powerless people? Where do nations use political, military or economic force to promote self-serving policies? Where do political or economic powers act in ways that demand idolatrous allegiance? Where do individuals and societies cuddle the culture-god of consumerism? And in what ways are Christians drawn into being an accomplice to Babylon, whether actively or passively? (page 241; emphasis added)

Source: Dean Flemming, Recovering the Full Mission of God: A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing and Telling (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013).


The sad neglect of lament in ministry (Soong-Chan Rah)

When I came to faith in Christ in Asia many years ago, suffering was mentioned in almost every church service. The reason was simply that suffering was the daily experience for most  people. Poverty, social isolation, lack of hope, despair, and oppression where commonplace. But in the West today, I find that suffering is not something that Christians want to talk about too much.

In an article written in 2013, Soong-Chan Rah insightfully speaks of the necessity of lament, especially in the urban context.


Rah points out that prayers of lament can be found in about 40 percent of the Psalms (out of 150). But popular Christian songs often do not include lament. Rah says,

Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) licenses local churches in the use of contemporary worship songs. CCLI tracks the songs that are consistently sung in local churches. CCLIs list of the top 100 worship songs in August of 2012 reveals that only five of the songs would even remotely qualify as a lament. (page 61; emphasis added)

Rah goes on to say,

The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized, and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost . . . We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain. (page 61; emphasis added)

True reconciliation, justice, and shalom require a remembering of suffering, an unearthing of a shameful history, and a willingness to enter into lament. Lament calls for an authentic encounter with the truth. Lament must not be ignored for the sake of uplifting praiseworthy stories of success. Lament reintroduces necessary narratives of suffering. (page 62; emphasis added)

Praise seeks to maintain the status quo, while lament cries out against existing injustices. Christian communities arising from celebration do not want their lives changed because their lives are in a good place. (page 62)

Lament recognizes the struggles of life. The status quo is not to be celebrated but instead must be challenged . . . American Christians that flourish under the existing system seek to maintain the status quo and remain in the theology of celebration over and against the theology of suffering. (page 62; emphasis added)

To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand. (page 63)

[A] triumphalistic theology of celebration and privilege rooted in a praise-only narrative is perpetuated by the absence of lament and the underlying narrative of suffering that informs lament. (page 63; emphasis added)

Rah then talks about an integration of lament in urban ministry.

The belief that the cities are places of need, devoid of the gospel, is linked to the success-oriented narrative shaped by suburban models of ministry. (page 67)

[U]rban ministry must embrace the theology of suffering in the face of great pressure to adopt exclusively the theology of celebration . . . our approach to urban ministry must acknowledge the painful story of the church’s dysfunctional relationship with the city. (page 67)

No longer should urban ministry be defined by the transplant who journeys to the city to save it. Instead, the relocator may find their redemption in intersecting with the city. Urban missionaries are not the saviors of the city. Rather, the churches in the city may provide redemption for those whose theology of celebration excludes the essential element of the theology of suffering. (pages 67–68; emphasis added)

The urban church becomes the place where the fullness of suffering is expressed in a safe environment. The church has the power to bring healing. That power is not found in an emphasis on strength but in suffering and weakness. (page 68; emphasis added)

A theological reading of Lamentations calls the church to make room for the stories of suffering. Space is created for healing to arise from the power of stories, particularly stories of suffering. (page 68; emphasis added)

Source: Soong-Chan Rah “The Necessity of Lament for Ministry in the Urban Context,” Ex Auditu 29 (2013): 54–69.

John Barclay on grace in Paul’s letters

In a recent interview with Wesley Hill of Christianity Today (31st Dec 2015), John M. G. Barclay talks about his latest book, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), and explains his understanding of the grace of God. In many ways Barclay speaks of my own understanding of grace, based on what I have learned in recent years through my engagement with the poor, cross-cultural mission, and my study of the issues around poverty and culture. It seems to me that, to a large extent, our understanding of the meaning of grace, the gospel, and the Scripture determines how live out our Christian life.


Barclay said many amazing things in the interview, and here are some of them (emphasis added).

Paul talks about Christ as the gift of God, the grace of God. What is striking about this is that this gift is given without regard to the worth of the people who receive it. God doesn’t give discriminately to seemingly fitting recipients. He gives without regard to their social, gender, or ethnic worth. Nothing about them makes them worthy of this gift.

Think of someone who sits with a homeless man on the street and listens to him, . . . or those who give up “good jobs” in order to spend their lives with people with severe learning difficulties . . . When he talks about the grace of God in Christ, that is the kind of gift Paul is talking about.

Paul’s theology of grace is not just about an individual’s self-understanding and status before God. It’s also about communities that crossed ethnic, social, and cultural boundaries.

[S]ome Protestants believe it’s inappropriate for God to expect something in return, because it would somehow work against grace . . . However, that can lead to notions of cheap grace . . . While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift, God indeed expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit. As he puts it, we are under grace, which can legitimately lead to obedience, even obligation.

What I find so profound is the capacity of grace to dissolve our inherent and inherited systems—what we might call social capital. What counts before God is not what we pride ourselves on—or what we doubt ourselves on. What counts is simply that we are loved in Christ. This is massively liberating, not only to us as individuals but also to communities, because it gives them the capacity to reform and to be countercultural.

That’s why some of the most exciting churches today are not necessarily the big ones, but rather the small, multicultural, urban churches where you discover that different ethnicities and languages don’t count before God. Our education, our age, our job, the kind of music we listen to, the books we read—these do not ultimately define us. What defines us is who we are in Christ. We all are on the same level together and are therefore able to form countercultural relationships despite our differences. And that opens up the possibility for hugely creative Christian communities.

Source: Accessed on 13th Jan 2016

Reading Romans in a globalised, urban world (David W. Smith)

My sense is that in the emerging globalised world we are seeing more and more urban poverty issues. For example, as I highlighted in the past, there are a lot of elderly people living in poverty in Hong Kong, despite the enormous amount of wealth among the rich in the city. (Click here to see the post.)

In his book, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 2013), David W. Smith insightfully talks about how we may read Romans in our globalised urban world. Here are a few excerpts.

The collapse of Christendom, and the resulting crisis for the churches of the West, the massive growth of Christianity across the Global South, especially . . . in contexts of urban poverty and suffering, and the accelerating expansion of cities, driven by economic and ideological forces which pose similar questions to those we have seen Paul expressing with regard to the Roman imperium, all of these developments in our world presage a new epoch in Christian history. The Hispanic theologian Justo González comments that we are living ‘in time of vast changes in the church’s self-understanding’, and that the consequences of the shifts taking place today ‘will be more drastic than those which took place in the sixteenth century’. The loss of Christendom, González says, should not be lamented since it opens up the possibility that the meaning of Scripture may become clearer to us as truth is seen to consist not in abstract, intellectual concepts, but rather as ‘closely bound with bread and wine, with justice and peace, with a coming Reign of God . . .

González points out that one of the features of the transformation taking place around us is that whole swathes of the human population, taught of their superiors and betters, are today finding their voices. Ethnic minorities, women and children, people who ‘for reasons of class, nationality, sex, . . . , will no longer be silent’. What this suggests is that the most significant insights into Paul’s message are likely to come from below, from people whose socio-economic situations in a globalized world corresponds closely to that of the majority of the original recipients of this letter [that is, Paul’s letter to the Romans] in the slums of the megacity of Rome.

This fact is highlighted by Peter Oakes’ use of archaeological evidence in the ruins of Pompeii to construct an imagined ’house church’ in first-century Rome. Such a group certainly included slaves, including women who were almost routinely subjected to sexual exploitation. How would such followers of Jesus have heard Paul’s letter?

Indeed, in the twenty-first century we must do more than think about this, we must ask our brothers and sisters in the slums of Sao Paulo, Nairobi and Mumbai how they hear this ancient letter and what following Jesus means in practice in their daily lives.


Sources: The references to González above are from Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 48, 50. The excerpts from David Smith’s The Kindness of God are from location 1443–1478 in the Kindle version of the book.

Downward mobility for Jesus

Upward mobility seems to be the hope and desire for many today, not least among middle-class Asians living in the West. There are many Christians who seek the same thing. But I have wondered whether this aspiration should be questioned. Recently I came across something written by a Chinese living in the UK (Rev Henry Lu), who suggests that downward mobility is not a bad thing at all!

Increasing social mobility is something most of us aspire to achieve in life. We set our goals to move up the social class ladder by attaining a higher level of education, moving into a more prestigious profession, and by accumulating more wealth. After we achieve our own success, we want to ensure our children will be better off than we are. In a society where pursuing upward mobility is the norm, it is very easy for Christians to also accept it as common sense and as a necessity without any exceptions. We steer away from moving downward to a lower social class.

By contrast, the path that our Lord Jesus took when he came into our world was one of descending and identifying with those at the lowest level of society. Our Lord gave up his divine privileges to not only become a human being but to also take the humble position of a slave; He even walked this downward path of obedience all the way to death on the cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

As followers of Christ, we are also called to go into the world to reach out to our fellow human beings, who are down and out, with compassion and the love of God. While we need to pursue excellence in everything we do so as to not waste the gifts and talents God has entrusted us with, we also need to ask God to give us courage to act obediently when God points us in the direction of downward movement on the social class ladder. It is time we consider living our life in a conscious way of downward mobility for Jesus.

Source: The article can be found by clicking here. (Accessed on 5th January 2016.)

Reflections on the long journey of becoming a biblical scholar

Truth be told, I am an academic by nature (although I am not very smart). I am not a practical person. In high school, I liked Pure Maths, but didn’t enjoy Applied Maths. At University I liked browsing the academic journals in the library. When I finished my BSc (Hons) and MSc degrees, my professors suggested that I should do a PhD. But I didn’t take up their offers because I thought I wasn’t smart enough.

Edward Boyle Library

Then I migrated to Australia and worked in IT. When I turned thirty, I enrolled at a Bible college. I thought God wanted me to serve him, and theological training was a steppingstone to full-time ministry. I started working in my church as a pastor while I was still at college. But meanwhile I discovered (once again!) that I loved academic studies.

Pastoral ministry taught me a lot. I had many opportunities to hear the stories of people whose lives had been transformed by the gospel. I spent time with the poor, as well as the wealthy. I visited the sick at hospital. I learned to deal with inter-personal conflicts between church members. My wife and I had little money, and we learned to trust God for his provision. Life was difficult, but I would not trade those years for anything else.

But my passion for academic studies continued. I enrolled in an MPhil as soon as I finished my BA in biblical studies. The MPhil was a research master’s degree, where I had to write a major thesis. God led me to study under a respected New Testament scholar in the UK. But the MPhil was costly, because I had to fly to the UK a few times (even though I could do most of the research in Australia). Yet, once again God supplied all our needs, even though we had little income.

After that I worked in an international aid and development organisation. My job was to speak at theological colleges and churches about poverty and development. For almost seven years I studied the issues surrounding poverty and social injustice. Meanwhile, we attended an inner-city church where a significant number of members were refugees or living with mental health issues. This gave us the opportunity to stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalised.

I learned that poverty was a complex matter. And the longer I was involved in aid and development, the more I found my life impacted by the pain and suffering of those living with poverty and social injustice. Since my academic discipline was in biblical studies, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the Bible had to say about poverty. I began to realise that there was a big gap between academic biblical studies and the lived reality of those living with poverty.

During that time, I started working on my doctoral degree part-time. Since my primary passion was the Bible, I decided to research on the New Testament, rather than poverty and development. And since I believed that the research topic should be relevant to real life issues, I chose to study the apostle Paul’s view of suffering. I completed my PhD at the age of fifty, and by God’s grace a revised version of my dissertation is now published. Unfortunately, nowadays there are very few tenured teaching positions for New Testament scholars. And so I don’t see myself getting a permanent job for a long time, if it happens at all. But God has given me plenty of opportunities to teach as an adjunct lecturer.

Reflecting on this long journey, I would like to say a few things about what I have learned in the process.

First, the Bible is important. I don’t say this lightly. I say this based on years of pastoral experience and involvement in aid and development. I say this after a lot of time living in want and having to trust God for his financial provisions. I have no regrets in doing many years of intense study on the Scripture. It is a privilege.

Second, I thank God for biblical scholars. I am indebted to those who have gone before me to master the biblical languages and provided students with valuable tools to study Greek and Hebrew. I am thankful to scholars whose works enrich and deepen my own understanding of Scripture. Ultimately the church is the beneficiary of their labour.

Third, and most importantly, I tend to think that academic biblical study is an integral part of a long journey of knowing God and his purpose for his creation. For me, academic study is not a pathway to a promising career. Nor is it something to satisfy my intellectual carving for abstract ideas. I did a PhD because I wanted to know God, and it is still my desire to know him through the Scripture. An academic vocation may be a by-product. And yes, I like playing with abstract concepts in my head. But my primary reason to study the Bible is that I may know God through the Scripture, and allow God to transform my life for his purposes.

Of course, God does call people to be full-time academics. But it is not a “career” to be pursued in order to become successful. Instead, it is a vocation that calls for cruciform commitment for the sake of the Christ in the service of the church and the mission of God. The apostle Paul, a very learned figure in the Bible, did not set out to become a renowned or distinguished scholar. Instead, he wanted to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and share in his sufferings—being conformed to his death (see Phil 3:10).

(I suppose many would disagree with me here. I should say that these are my reflections on my own journey. Different people have different experiences and convictions.)


Fourth, it is worth taking time to work outside the academy. When I was a pastor, I realised that I could become out of touch with the world if I spent all of my time dealing with people inside the church. Likewise, biblical scholars can lose touch with the reality faced by the people outside their teaching institutions. After all, the Bible is about real people living in the real world, and one cannot truly understand the biblical text without spending time outside the academy.

I know that it is not practically possible for many—if not most—scholars to engage in work outside the academy. And I want to emphasise here that full-time biblical academics have my highest respect. But I wonder whether there are creative ways to engage with the world in some tangible and concrete ways?

I grew up working in a factory in East Asia, and I worked in IT in corporations in both Australia and overseas. These life experiences are incredibly valuable when I teach the Bible. I did my MPhil and PhD part-time while I was working part-time (in IT or the aid and development sector). And now I have a small office-cleaning job, which serves as a reminder of what it is like to earn a living through low-paid menial tasks. Again, Paul, being a leather-worker (or “tent-maker”), was a good model of being a bi-vocational pastor, missioner, and theologian.

Fifth, let us realise that genuine Christian faith involves Christ-centred transformation in every sphere of our lives. The goal of biblical interpretation is not primarily about apologetics or defending the truth, but living out the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus in everyday life. Some years ago, a respected scholar was invited by an aid and development organisation to speak at a special event about poverty. He eloquently demonstrated that in church history Christians were generous in giving financially to the poor. He refuted the claim that the church failed to care for the needy. He called on the audience to continue the long church tradition of involving in charity work.

I agree with this scholar’s argument, and I admire his humility in his presentation. But I was disappointed by his simplistic view of poverty. Even a standard textbook on aid and development will show that financial generosity alone (though important in itself) is a limited and insufficient solution to poverty. He might have won the argument in showing that the church was active in serving the poor in the past. But his rather simplistic view of poverty reduction would not win the heart of those who actively walked with the poor in the twenty-first century.

I understand that it is impossible to know everything and be involved in everything. But it wouldn’t do to ignore the culture and the struggles of people outside the four walls of the seminary or the building of a well-resourced middle-class church. If we don’t have friends from a low socioeconomic background, how can we truly understand Jesus’ fulfilment of the Isaianic text of proclaiming good news to the poor in Luke 4:18? If we are ignorant of the issues around refugees, and if we don’t personally know any refugee, how can we understand the many biblical texts concerning them? If we don’t have friends from different ethnic backgrounds, how can we recognise the cultural and racial dynamics in the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters? If we don’t get to know people living with a disability and those suffering from domestic violence, how can we teach the Good News in the Scripture effectively?

In the four Gospels we find that Jesus was very often on the road, and he gathered a community of believers from all walks of life, not least the poor and marginalised. The narratives in the Gospels serve to draw us closer to God’s heart, and challenge us to see our own inadequacies. Spending time with those who suffer helps us to see the amazing work of God in their lives and understand the biblical texts accordingly. We will do well to follow Jesus’ footsteps.

So, is it possible for a biblical scholar to do all of the above? Given the heavy workload and demand within the academy, it is very hard. But I know scholars who do the above in various ways. They do personally spend time with the poor and marginalised, and pour out their heart to those in need in prayers. They engage with real people in the real world. Some do that a lot, and others do less. But no matter how much or little they do, they are an inspiration.


Book review: David W. Smith, The Kindness of God

Book review: David W. Smith, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 2013).

In his book, The Kindness of God, David Smith asks some penetrating questions about how to bear witness in a trouble world. Smith turns his readers’ attention to two things at the beginning of the book. First, he talks about his experience as a speaker at a conference in Jos, Nigeria. Jos is described as a post-colonial city that owes its existence to the expansion of European colonial power, and it sits on the fault line between African Christianity and Islam. Second, Smith refers to the foresight of the well-known missionary and scholar, Leslie Newbigin, that in the coming century there would be three factors that would compete for people’s allegiance: the gospel, the free market, and Islam.

The book then proceeds to discuss many issues concerning the world today: globalisation, urbanisation, market economy, suffering, poverty, violence, and religious tension. Smith argues that we need to translate the gospel for the globalised world in the twenty-first century. He challenges Christians to critique their own understanding of the gospel in light of the Scripture. He skilfully proposes an informed reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans for the urban world. Smith concludes by bringing his readers back to his experience in Jos, Nigeria, as well as Newbigin’s insightful comments about the gospel, the free market, and Islam.

David Smith's The Kindness of God

David Smith is well versed in the history of mission, missiology, and the Bible. This is demonstrated by his familiarity with the works of Justo González, Walter Brueggemann, Kevin Vanhoozer, Robert Jewett, and Leslie Newbigin. His competence in these areas allows him to provide a lucid, insightful, and informed discussion on Christian witness in a world of racial conflicts and religious tensions. His book helps its readers to understand the historical and present inter-relationships between faith, the free market, globalisation, and urbanisation. This, in turn, assists Christians to assess the way they face the challenges that lie ahead of them.

The book contains many perceptive uses of Scripture. Smith refers to the Bible frequently, with one chapter focussing on Romans and its implications for the urban churches today. He argues that in church history there were times when Christians interpreted the same Scripture in opposite manners. He then suggests that in our troubled world nowadays Christians still read the Bible differently, resulting in opposing interpretations and applications for the same issues. Smith calls for a faithful reading of Scripture in our troubled world—one that is in line with our allegiance to the crucified and risen Christ rather than human idolatrous desires.

The book is not for those looking for a self-help book that simply tells people what to believe in. But if you want to read a book that invites you to think carefully and respond thoughtfully about Christian witness in the world, then The Kindness of God is for you. Smith does not go into convoluted theological arguments. He is, however, a passionate and persuasive writer. The book is engaging, full of insights, and challenging. It will leave the reader with plenty to ponder.

Finally, it is worth citing an excerpt of the endorsement by Jonathan Lamb, Director, Langham Preaching.

[The book provokes] us to think freshly not only about the missiological challenges out there . . . but also the challenges at home that we so easily neglect — a church shaped by materialism, a gospel distorted by secular culture, a proclamation of the cross without the experience of its weakness and power. In this troubled world, he urges us to rediscover the fullness of the gospel . . . and to listen to the voices of compassion from the underside of globalisation . . . this book provokes reflection on the hope which flows from the kindness of God. It is an urgent, prophetic and compassionate book that is rooted in our broken world but lifts our eyes to see God’s purposes for his global church.

Christ the King: The embodiment of truth and the faithful witness

(Scripture reading: 2 Sam 23:1–7; Ps 132:1–12; John 18:33–37; Rev 1:4b–8)

(The following is a sermon delivered on 22nd November 2015.)

What does “Christ the King” mean to Christians in Melbourne, Australia?

The theme in the lectionary this Sunday is “Christ the king.” I wonder what “Jesus the king” means to Christians today?

Some years ago a friend bought a house. She was really thankful to God that they found this wonderful house for her young family of six. You see, they had four children. It was important for them to have a family room, a dinning room, a deck; and that everyone has their own bedroom. My friend and her husband were active members of their church. For them, “Jesus the king” means faithful service in church, and trusting God for his blessings for themselves and their children.

But I kept thinking about other families in the world. How about the low-income families in Melbourne who can’t afford a mortgage and have to rent? How about followers of Jesus in my home country in Asia, like a relative of mine who, as a 21-year-old young lady, does not have her own bedroom, and the likelihood of having one is very slim? What would “Jesus being the king” mean to them?

In more general terms, if life itself is a constant struggle, what does “Christ the king” mean?

Let us keep this in mind as we look at the four Scripture readings today.

The ideal king who rules with justice (2 Sam 23:1–7)

Our first reading is from 2 Samuel 23. It speaks of the kingship of David, the king of Israel. Verses 3 and 4 say that he rules with justice in the fear of God.

To be honest, I find it hard to understand, for David does not appear to be a just and righteous king all the time. Back in 2 Sam 11, we find that David misused his power as a king. His sins against Bathsheba and Uriah were not simply a matter of sexual immorality and murder. They were acts of oppression and injustice, using his power to exploit others.

I tend to think that the Hebrew Bible portrays David as a complex character with good qualities as well as many flaws. Often he sought to be loyal to the LORD. But at times he appeared to be a shrewd politician, whose motives were somewhat dubious.

But 2 Sam 23 says that David rules justly in the fear of God, and that he has made an everlasting covenant for him. The picture here is not so much about the whole life of David. Rather, it speaks of an ideal king—that is, what it looks like to be a king who truly follows the LORD.

What we also see here, I think, is that God is faithful despite our human weakness. David did some wonderful things. But as a duty-bearer of the people of the LORD, he also failed terribly in many ways. Yet God is faithful to his people, and will honour his everlasting covenant.

I think we need to recognise how important it is that our politicians act justly. For instance, shifts in government policies can have a major impact on low-income families. The future of their children will be adversely affected if there is a cut in funding for their local school. GST (Goods and Services Tax) on basic food will be a major problem for them. My friend told me that funding for mental health services in Melbourne’s western suburbs was not as good as that in the east. Unjust governance can be a disaster for low-income earners.

For the followers of Jesus who struggle financially, I think the notion of “Jesus the king” takes on a new meaning. In the face of unjust treatment, they turn to their God for refuge. It is the faithfulness of God and their trust in his just and righteous rule that makes a difference.

The presence of God in hardship (Ps 132: 1–12)

On this note, let us turn to Psalm 132. Like 2 Samuel 23, this Scripture speaks of David’s kingship and the LORD’s covenant. But it starts with a reference to David’s hardship, and his determination to establish a dwelling place for his God, which is most likely to be the temple in Jerusalem. The Psalm then goes on to say that the LORD’s presence will be with his people, and that he will satisfy the poor with bread.

What is somewhat surprising in this Psalm is that the quality of the king is not so much his power and military might. Rather, it has something to do with his hardship and endurance, as well as his desire for God’s presence.

Interestingly, the covenant mentioned in this Psalm is conditional. It says in verse 12 that David’s descendants can sit on the throne only if they keep the decrees of the LORD. It is not an everlasting covenant, as in the case of 2 Samuel 23.

As you know, many of the descendants of David turned out to be unfaithful. And indeed, how often do we find leaders today who truly do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, as Micah 6:8 says?

A non-violent king who is the embodiment of God’s faithfulness (John 18:33–37)

The good news is that despite human unfaithfulness, God is faithful. He sent his Son to the world. John’s Gospel tells us that the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). The presence of God is not only found in the temple. The Son of God himself was present with us, and walked among humans.

In our Scripture reading today we find that Jesus was arrested and put on trial in front of the governor Pilate, who was the official representative of the Roman Empire.

Apparently the Jews had said that Jesus claimed that he was the king of the Jews. This would be considered as treason (from the perspective of the Roman Empire).

Here, we have a clash of two kingdoms, the kingdom of Jesus, and the Roman Empire. And these two are set in sharp contrast.

The Roman Empire was well known for its military might and the glory of their magnificent buildings. Their political and economic powers were supreme, and no-one could resist them. Any resistance would be dealt with without mercy. The Roman cross was a good example of how the Romans treated those who dared to oppose them. The cross was a tool of punishment to humiliate and frighten Rome’s opponents. It was a symbol of shame and fear.

But Jesus said to Pilate,

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.

What Jesus is saying is that his kingdom does not use power to overcome power. In fact, Jesus’ stance here was one of non-violent resistance. In the face of the Roman cross, he boldly said to the Roman official that he indeed had a kingdom, implying that he was the King, and hence inviting Pilate to crucify him. He scorned the shame of the cross and said that his kingdom had nothing to do with the oppressive use of violence, like that of the Roman Empire.

I wonder what this means to us today?

I think we need to question any policy that uses military action to deal with evil. I think we have to resist any autocratic leadership in a Christian community, for all too often it ends up with undue manipulation of power. For those who are in leadership position—whether in church or in our vocation outside the church—I think we should be careful that we do not abuse the power entrusted to us. When we face opposition as a leader, let us not use power to overcome power, for that is not the way of Jesus. Whenever we find ourselves in a position of power—whether it is by virtue of our physical strength, intellectual ability, education, or profession—we need to follow the example of Jesus, and refrain from using power to dominate another person.

Let us get back to John’s Gospel. I think what is remarkable is that Pilate seemed to be the powerless one, despite the fact that he had the power to crucify Jesus.

Jesus said to him,

You say that I am a king. For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (18:37)

The Greek word for “truth” (ἀλήθεια)—in the context of John’s Gospel—does not mean some kind of true perspective behind reality or an accurate factual representation of events (as the Greeks and Romans might say). Nor does it refer to some kind of propositional truth.

Instead, it refers to God’s truthfulness, trustworthiness, and faithfulness.

And in John’s Gospel, Jesus—the Son of God who had become a human being—was the embodiment of the truth. That is, he was the “enfleshed presence of God.” While David wanted to build a temple to bring the presence of God to Jerusalem, Jesus himself was God’s presence among humans. While the covenant with David represented God’s faithfulness, Jesus himself was the embodiment of that faithfulness.

When Pilate put Jesus the King on trial, he did not recognise that. Jesus’ non-violent resistance to the might of the Empire and his boldness to face the Roman cross caught Pilate off guard.

What happened afterwards was a divine act that was full of irony. Pilate was the one who had the authority to either crucify or release Jesus. But although he wanted to release Jesus (since he believed that he was innocent), he ended up crucifying him because of the crowd. The one who had the power in the political system at the time actually did not have the power to do what he wanted. Nothing can hinder God’s agenda, so that Jesus might be crucified for the world.

I think this is what I need to learn. For too many times I felt miserable because I saw the oppressor go unpunished. I lost sleep when an autocratic leader became even more powerful. I got depressed when the shareholders of big corporations got richer, while the poor got poorer. I felt upset when a misogynist politician got into power. I forgot that God’s ways are higher than ours, and that the Almighty God is working behind the scene to put things right. Those in positions of power do not have the last word. Our job is to remain faithful to God, and pattern our lives after that of Jesus.

Follow the faithful (Rev 1:4–8)

This brings us to our last Scripture reading in Revelation. John wrote to the seven churches when they were persecuted in the Roman Empire. The imperial cult was a big problem for them. Christians were expected to bow down to the images and statues of the emperor and the gods. Those who refused to do so would be persecuted.

We have to understand that religion was not a private matter. The worship of idols and the image of the emperor was a public declaration of a person’s allegiance and loyalty to Rome and their gods. Followers of Jesus knew that, and they were not willing to bow down to idols because of their allegiance to Jesus their King.

But Revelation says that Jesus is the Faithful Witness. And glory and dominion belong to him forever and ever.

But most importantly, we need to note that he is the King because he was pierced to death—he was the Lamb that was slaughtered. He did not become king because of his power and might. Rather, he became the ruler of all because of his faithful self-giving suffering and death on the Roman cross.

The Book of Revelation calls Christians to follow this Faithful Witness, whose death has set them free.

Some time ago I studied Revelation at a theological college with some students from Burma. One of them said to me, “We understood this when we were persecuted in Burma. But what does it mean to us in Australia today?”

I think the answer lies in identifying the idols in our culture. Consider materialism and consumerism. Material possession is, of course, not in and of itself evil. But do we realise that our desire to buy things that we don’t need is unrelenting. The Advent season starts next Sunday. But instead of counting down to Christmas, many of us are counting down to the next episode of Star Wars. As the “force awakens,” we flock to the Star Wars merchandise and buy more and more—for Christmas, of course.

In the meantime, we forget about the meaning of Christmas, which is about the Word became flesh, that the Son of God became a human, to embody the truthfulness of God in a world of deceitfulness and injustice.

I can go on to talk about the ideological belief in a highly market-driven global economy, resulting in a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the exploitation of low-wage workers overseas. Or I can talk about individualism, the worship of self and a self-centred life, which is of course the direct opposite of the self-giving love of Christ. Or I can talk about the god of nationalism, a them-and-us mentality that goes against the Christian call to welcome strangers, and that our God is God of all peoples, not just one nation.

I hope you get the picture. These things are calling us to worship them—privately and in public. But we are to resist them and follow the way of the Lamb that was slaughtered.

Concluding story

Let me conclude. I read that in Hong Kong there are tens of thousands of elderly people who live in poverty. But they are people of resilience. Many of them worked long hours to collect recyclable rubbish from the streets and from rubbish bins, and sell it for a small amount of money to pay for a meal for the day.

Some of them have to walk up seven stories to get to their makeshift housing on the roof of an apartment block, which is a taxing task even for young people on a hot and humid day. Yet these elderly people persevere, in defiance of the highly market-driven economy that has forsaken them, despite their lifelong contribution to the welfare of the city.

Then some Jesus-followers decided to do something about this. They gather Christians from churches all over the city to work with these elderly people. Instead of giving them money as an easy solution, these Christians spend a day with them gathering recyclable rubbish from the streets. The idea is to walk with them, hear their stories, and learn from them.

I think it is a wonderful picture of Christians trying to resist evil and follow the way of Jesus the King, the One who embodied the faithfulness of God in this unjust world. It is a public declaration that we do not bow down to the idol of self and the endless pursuit of wealth and upward mobility. It is a demonstration that we worship the Lamb that was slaughtered.

In a few weeks’ time I am going to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I like good sci-fi movies. But you know what? I think it is time for Christians to awaken. Let us worship Jesus the King, and not succumb to the dark forces of the empires in this world.

Let us worship Christ with these words from Revelation.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

The display of wealth of the city and the urban poor

I came across an article written by Dr Jayakumar Christian, someone I respect greatly. It is entitled The Rise of the Urban Poor. There is much to ponder, but I will only highlight a few things using the following quotes.

Jayakumar Christian talks about the “vulgar display of wealth” of the city, and observes that the rich-poor disparity is an increasing problem.

In a strange way, the city brings to the fore in a pronounced manner the gap [between the rich and the poor]—the worst of urban poverty. The rich display their wealth as if the poor do not exist in the cities. The malls and neon lights overshadow the dark corners where the poor eke out their living. Shining India happily coexists with abject poverty as though poverty was a mere landscape issue. One wonders if this is a consequence of our religious philosophies and worldview . . . There is a parasitical relationship––not manipulation but helplessness. In the process, the poor and vulnerable children get exploited and oppressed.

What is often touted as a ‘lack of political will’ in our governance and bureaucratic leadership is really an intentional (ideological) effort to crush (never allow) any uprising of the poor and to suppress any emergence of hope. This is about a powerful collective playing god in the lives of the poor and wounding the souls of the poor, reducing them to a state of hopelessness.

In terms of the church’s response, Jayakumar Christian has the following (and much more) to say.

Grassroots practitioners/agents of change must:

reflect their ‘inner being’ through their engagement. Poverty and powerlessness are human and relational; therefore responses to poverty must also be human and relational. This requires investment of life. It cannot be reduced to mere action plans; demonstrate covenant-quality inclusive relationships based on truth practitioners must allow truth to confront their public and private life;

be competent to exegete God’s work among the poor-trace the ‘patterns’ in God’s movement among the poor in the city; be competent to analyse the worldview of a people and the ideology that drives the economic, political and other systems that crush the poor; and be countercultural in a society that values entitlement over sacrifice.”

The church—the prophetic community—must rediscover herself in her own neighbourhood. The church must locate its mission in the space . . . between hope and hopelessness, life and joy, and pain and death. The church is the evidence that our God has not given up on the urban poor.

Source: as at 8/9/2014

Latest issue of Journal for the Study of Paul and his Letters (Summer, 2015)

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There are some great articles in the latest issue of the Journal for the Study of Paul and his Letters. Take a look!

Siu Fung Wu
Participating in God’s Purpose by Following the Cruciform Pattern of Christ: The Use of Psalm 69:9b in Romans 15:3

Matthew E. Gordley
Galatians and the Progymnasmata on Refuting a Law: A Neglected Aspect of Pauline Rhetoric

Jamin Hubner
Revisiting authenteo in 1 Timothy 2:12: What Do the Extant Data Really Show?

Michael Flexsenhar
Recovering Paul’s Hypothetical Slaves: Rhetoric and Reality in 1 Corinthians 7:21

Michael J. Keown
Did Paul Plan to Escape from Prison? (Philippians 1:19-26)

J. De Wall Dryden
Revisiting Romans 7: Law, Self, and Spirit

God’s faithfulness to teach and guide us


There is a section in the new book, God’s Faithfulness, called “God’s faithfulness to teach and guide us.” In its introduction I found this quote that is quite inspiring.

Of course, there are times when we are puzzled because we do not understand exactly what God is doing. Perhaps circumstances or events seem to put roadblocks in the way we thought God was leading us. Perhaps we are simply not clear as to what God wants us to do, and clear guidance does not seen to come. Perhaps the answers to our fervent prayers are delayed, or different from what we expected and hoped for. It is when we are most uncertain that we most need to hold on to God’s faithfulness, and trust him even when we cannot see . . . [The following] stories will tell us about God’s loving guidance, sometimes at one particular moment, sometimes over a long period, and his gentle teaching and training as we put our trust in him. Walking by faith is a great adventure! (Emphasis added)

Source: Rose Dowsett and Chad Berry, God’s Faithfulness, 230.

Worldliness & the Social Scandal of the Cross

Faith Improvised

One of the many benefits of John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift is the manner in which he captures how for Paul the effects of the cross are seen in the social ordering of churches.

The cross is a world-shattering and world-creating event, refashioning the cosmos, effecting a new creation. This cosmic upheaval brings about a radically new social order among those communities that claim loyalty to Jesus Christ.

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Speaking for all those in Christ, Paul says that “the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14), creating a community in which ethnic distinctions no longer determine social capital (v. 15).

This is why Paul reacts so strongly to communities that are still ordered socially according to worldly valuations such as gender hierarchies and claims to ethnic and racial priority that privilege one group over another. These hierarchies belong to the world that has been…

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